Thirty Minutes with Matthew Ryan Hoge

Matthew Ryan Hoge took a strange path to filmmaking. Yes, he earned a Bachelor's Degree from the University of Southern California's School of Cinema. But he then spent two years teaching young violent offenders at a juvenile hall in Los Angeles. Hoge's first film, Self Storage, never found distribution. Rather than grow discouraged, Hoge wrote The United States of Leland, based in part on his experiences at the juvenile hall. Leland is a quiet, thoughtful high school student who one day kills Ryan, the retarded younger brother of his ex-girlfriend. In a juvenile hall, Pearl, a bright teacher, tries to understand Leland and make sense of the seemingly inexplicable crime. Pearl wants to help Leland but also plans to write a book about the youth. Outside the hall, both Leland's and Ryan's family try to cope with the murder and its aftermath.

Hoge's script eventually ended up with Kevin Spacey, who became it's champion. Spacey, and his production company Trigger Street, helped find financing. He also took the small but pivotal role of Albert, Leland's father. Don Cheadle starred as Pearl, while up-and-comer Ryan Gosling played Leland. Jena Malone, Martin Donovan, Ann Magnuson, Chris Klein, Michelle Williams and Lena Olin rounded out the talented cast.

After strong word of mouth at last year's Sundance Film Festival, Paramount Classics bought the distribution rights. The United States of Leland opens in limited release this month. A couple of weeks ago Hoge visited D.C. as part of a promotion tour. He was kind enough to sit down with me to discuss his film, his experiences, and his future.

Adam Spector - You've been very open about the role of your experiences teaching in a juvenile hall in creating this film. How much of the film is autobiographical? Was there a Leland or was he a composite? Did you face similar challenges as Pearl did in getting to know some of the inmates?

Matthew Ryan Hoge - There was never a Leland. That part was fictional. Leland was a character I'd been carrying around for a while. He probably came from reading The Stranger by Albert Camus a few too many times in my youth. Most of the kids I interacted with in the facility were caught up in the gang world, so they were very different from Leland. Those characters were represented in the film but they were not the heart of it. But a lot of it was autobiographical - a lot of what Pearl is going through. He has access to the kids I never had. I never really had that kind of time outside the classroom. But the experience I'd like the audience to take is sort of what I had teaching, where I showed up hearing about these kids. My first day . . . the kids were grouped together by offense and I was going into a classroom with 17 kids that had been charged with murder.

AS - Threw you in the deep end, huh?

MRH - I had never taught a class, nothing. I walked in finding all of this stuff out. There are really no lesson plans in juvenile hall because you have an incredible range (of kids). You have three kids who can't speak English and a kid who was in the Harvard track. So you're just scrambling for the 3-4 hours you have as class. So I just had this feeling. I'd never been around anyone who had killed someone, so I had an idea, as I think anybody else would, as to what sort of person is capable of that. And over the time I spent with the kids I just had to revise that notion, because I was not there to witness what they did. Their lives are now being defined by that one action, but I wasn't there for that action. I don't know the kid that did that. I'm interacting with them in a different way. And so the more distance I got from knowing what was in their case file . . . I felt that I really got to know them. And the sense, especially when you're dealing with such young people, that they're just kids. Most of them can't really explain why what happened happened. They're incredibly remorseful. They know what they did was wrong. And it's a different side, something that you don't see in the media . . . You have these kids shooting up high schools and things like that . . . we just turn them into absolute monsters, and there are so many other things going on that influence these kids, that influence the situation. I just wanted to get past that, take the audience on a journey so that when you hear about Leland's case you think "This guy must be a monster, there's no way we could understand him," and we try to pull people along to that goal.

AS - Make him more of a three-dimensional character.

MRH - Yeah, just realize that . . . the next time you pick up a paper and read about some shocking crime committed by a 15 year-old, a 17 year-old, to just think past the easy answers of "This kid was mentally insane," "this happened because he played too many violent video games," or "his dad wasn't there," and it's never that simple. These could be our kids, could be your kids, could be anybody's kids.

AS - Following up on that, how important was it for you to give no single reason why Leland committed his crime? Early on he comes right out and says that everyone is asking why. It's clear that Leland himself didn't want to give one single reason. Also, Leland commits his crime with a knife, not a gun. Was that because you wanted to stay away from the whole gun debate or was that more incidental?

MRH - To me the weapon was just a question of access. There wouldn't be a gun in his home. Also, the nature of the crime . . . I think the conditions of shooting someone are just very different. To kill someone with a knife, it's just grisly. Just to even consider what this must have been like. I think I just wanted something, an act that when you first meet Leland you just can't put the two together. Again, the experience I had with these kids was to find out that this kid who was doing great in my class had stabbed his mother 40 times. You just can't get your head around how this person could have committed that act.

AS - And every other time, in the flashbacks, when Leland was with Ryan he shows him the utmost kindness.

MRH - This isn't about the reason why this happened. It was very important for me not to have a clear "why" because I didn't want any place for the arrow of blame to really go. I wanted to keep it sort of shifting. If you look at the film toward the end there is . . . I don't think it's the "why" people expect there to be at the end where you find out he didn't do it or you find out it was some elaborate thing. But the truth is that a series of things happened to Leland that because he is the person that he is makes this action. So there is a reason his character does this action at this point in his life. But I didn't want it to boil down to "Let's blame Albert" . . . or "Let's blame Becky, the girlfriend," because I don't think it's ever that simple.

AS - To play devil's advocate, both of Leland's parents seem very removed from their son, especially Albert, who doesn't seem to show much love at all. Given your goals for the film, are you at all concerned that people might see it and immediately blame the parents?

MRH - Yeah, but I think that it's sort of instinctual for a lot of people. That's why there's always talk of suing the parents when one of these kids shoots up a high school. And the fact that Albert is really removed is a key part of the story. That's Leland's emotional model. He's got his mother who is a very feeling and a very emotional person and his father is on the (other) end of that pole. That's who Leland is looking up to. That's how you're a man. That's how you exist in this world is this incredible wall that you build up. You kind of view the world from this third person perspective and you're never really emotionally entangled. So I think that it is critical to Leland's psychology because he's sort of said "OK, I'm going to be like my dad." He keeps this wall up, and then everything changes. It's as if someone who has never seen light and suddenly there's all these shards of light. He's never felt anything and all of a sudden he falls in love with Becky and has his heart broken. He goes to New York and has that moment where, as a kid you realize that the adult world is as messed up, as conflicted, as the kid world. You realize, "Oh Sh-t, it's not going to get any better." And so all these things happen and it's because he's kept all these things out for so long. It just completely overwhelms him. It creates this enormous mess inside of him that he starts projecting onto other people.

AS - At one point in the flashbacks Becky's going through a rough time and she wants Leland to tell her that everything's going to be OK. That's pretty standard during a crisis, but Leland refuses to do that. What does that scene mean to you and what does it say about Leland?

MRH - To me there's a logic to it. It's like saying "Say you're always going to be there." Well I'm not always going to be there. I think he (Leland) doesn't understand that it's a real human need, that you want people to say that everything's going to be OK even if the other person who's saying that really can't control it. We want to be reassured that everything is going to work out and it's an exchange that he takes seriously because he's sort of new at this whole emotional connection with people, and it's something where he's getting his hands dirty for the first time. I think that he has a more logical head about it and he's learning how you get emotionally tangled up with people.

AS - The way I look at the film is that you get to know Pearl better than you get to know Leland. Leland is always at a distance. Yet it is Leland who provides the voiceover narration, not Pearl as some people might expect. Why did you make that choice?

MRH - To me it's a division. Pearl is the protagonist of the film. Leland is the heart of the film and I just felt that it was key to stay with Pearl and to tell Pearl's story. It's a way to get into Leland. Also, Leland is just keeping people out for the bulk of the film and the hope is with Pearl. It's this idea of why people go through awful things, bad things happen to them and that is how we become better people. If Leland had never wound up in this juvenile hall, I don't think Pearl would have . . . he'd be living the same kind of life . . . this collision with this kid forces him to reevaluate his life, the choices that he's made, the moral decisions that he's making, and he comes to a point at the end when he genuinely wants to be different. And for me it was important that . . . with the protagonist of the film you'd have some sense of hope.

AS - But how come Pearl didn't provide the voiceover?

MRH - I think that it was also essential that, because Leland was keeping people away at the beginning of the film, that it was a way to let people know that there's another side to him. Ryan Gosling affected for this character a really soft voice for this character, a really soothing, pleasing, gentle voice. And I think that he's saying things as he's writing in his journal that he can be more candid about. You can sense that there is an active, feeling person, while what he's giving to the world is this false front. Without that (the narration) it's very late in the film when you finally realize that there are cracks here, that he does feel things. And I felt that it would be too late. I think it's really key to sort of invite people in.

AS - I want to talk for a moment about the look of the film. Scenes in the juvenile hall are very bright and colorful compared to the more dark, foreboding look you often see in other movies that depict these places. Was this a conscious choice based on your own experiences?

MRH - Yeah, it was a combination of two things. One: That's really what it looks like. You see movie prisons and everything is dark and painted in shadows and grim. It's not really like that, at least that was not my experience. So I took the production designer and the DP (director of photography) to this place to look around and get a sense. There is light flooding through these windows. The walls are bright blue, and the kids are in bright orange . . . It's a weird contrast. There's some very grave stuff going on there. The kids are there for a very serious reason. But you have all these bright colors and sunlight. I also felt that with such heavy subject matter that it was important to be light in the treatment and to give people pleasing images. If you have something that's gritty, dark and dingy and you're dealing with what we're dealing with - a serious heavy subject matter, as a viewer I'd be checking out.

AS - Let's talk a little bit about the making of the film. How did your script end up with Kevin Spacey and Trigger Street Productions?

MRH - I don't even know. (laughs)

AS - It just appeared there?

MRH - Yeah. The script had been around a little bit and a lot of people read it. Someone gave it to somebody who gave it to Bernie Morris, who worked with Kevin at the time, and he gave it to Kevin. And Kevin was the guy I'd always wanted to play Albert but I really didn't know how to get into him, so some magical fairy fluttered it to his desk.

AS - You said you always wanted Kevin Spacey to be Albert. He initially became known for more acidic, sardonic type of roles. Lately, he's gotten away from that and played nicer characters. A lot of people I've talked to said "If only he'd go back to more of what he used to do." Do you think that's one of the things that attracted Spacey to the part?

MRH - I don't know. He'd been playing a different type of role. I think a lot of the reason he did it, to be candid, was because he wanted to get the movie made.

AS - That if he was in it people would be more likely to finance it.

MRH - And I think I wore him down. He knew I wanted him to play the part. I kept asking him and bugging him. I think it's fun for him to play that role. It's a different kind of role for him in the sense of . . . Albert is an asshole but he doesn't enjoy it as much as some of the other Spacey characters who really relished it. They knew they had the great line, knew they were killing you. Albert is just sort of disconnected and it's wit but he just sort of tosses it off like he just wrote it in a short story this morning. It's more casual, more flip. He's less emotionally invested in being acidic.

AS - In addition to Kevin Spacey, you have a very impressive cast. Don Cheadle, Jena Malone, Martin Donovan, Chris Klein. You were an unknown director. How were you able to get such an accomplished group of people. Was it difficult getting the actors you wanted?

MRH - I'd draw up my dream cast and slide it under his (Spacey's) door and he'd pick up the phone and call. And if I call Don Cheadle, he's like "Yeah, I don't know who this Hoge is." But when it's Kevin Spacey calling and saying "Check this script out and by the way I really trust the guy. You're gonna like it. He's going to make this work" you get immediate credibility when I really had no track record as a director. So it was surprisingly easy but that's entirely because of Kevin.

AS - How much guidance did you need to give your actors, especially some of the younger ones? Did they get the characters right away, or did you need to lead them through it?

MRH - I attached wires to them so I could shock them. (laughs)

AS - Well, that's one way to do it.

MRH - The cool thing is that we had a lot of time before to talk. With Chris Klein, who plays Alan, we really talked a lot about the character. I think that was very helpful for him to get it. And it was different things for Ryan (Gosling). I gave him a few books and CDs, and that became a way. We rehearsed a lot. So I think that by the time we got to shooting he was pretty ready. He knew where my head was coming from. That made it easier. But I think that it's just like trying to figure out what someone's process is and trying to help them inhabit that role as well as they can. Their job is a lot harder than mine, so I have tremendous respect for what actors do.

AS - Music plays an important role in your film. Some of the bands are ones that people are less likely to have heard of, such as The Pixies. Are you hoping that this film will expose people to new music and how did you go about selecting some of these contributors?

MRH - Yeah. Again, I lucked out. These were my favorite bands. The guy who did the score is Jeremy Enigk, who was with a band called Sunny Day Real Estate and is in a band now called The Fire Duct, who had always been someone I admired tremendously. The Pixies and Robert Pollard, who was with a band called Guided by Voices . . . If you ask anyone who runs a college radio station, they're going to start drooling because in a larger sense, they're (the bands) not well known but they're sort of the alternative independent mainstays. So for me just getting a chance to work with them and get music from people I really admired. And I think there's a segment of the population that will only see the film because of the music.

AS - Whatever works.

MRH - Yeah. (laughs)

AS - I wanted to ask you a little bit about Sundance, where Leland first gained national attention. The festival is under increasing scrutiny. I'd you to talk about your experiences. Was it what the Sundance was designed to do, foster growth and experimentation, or was it more just an opportunity for people to get a distributor for their films?

MRH - I think it's really tough because they (the Sundance organizers) are struggling with the identity of the festival. Five years ago we're not a Sundance film. I mean, look at the cast . . . You know, I've been on the other side. I made a film, a $9,000 film, and I was banging on the Sundance door and nobody was answering that door then. So I know what it's like to be shut out and the films that probably need the most help don't get it. The good thing is that there are a lot of other festivals around . . . Their intentions are really noble. They're kind of mystified about what it's become. Like everything else, though, if something is successful it's going to be about business . . . It's sort of weird, the corporate tie-ins. When I was there you can't walk down Main Street because there's f---in J-Lo. You know everybody's gawking at her. The good thing is that they get people to see films that otherwise wouldn't be seen. Their documentaries are great. They gain attention and audiences for films that would otherwise be forgotten . . . You want to be helping the films that need the help, while a film like ours, which doesn't seem like it needs help, needed it too. Because the system is set up that we needed Sundance exposure to really launch a film, because it's so hard for indies, whether it's a $10,000 film or a $10 million film.

AS - Has this film opened doors for you? Do you have any other projects lined up?

MRH - I'm writing a script for Curtis Hanson. It's a chance to learn from a brilliant guy and I've got something that I hope to be shooting by the end of the year.

AS - Something you're going to direct?

MRH - Something that I'm hoping to get going soon if somebody gives me the money. (Smiles broadly).

AS - Care to divulge what either of the projects are about or are they trade secrets?

MRH - The one I'm doing is top secret. The Curtis Hanson one is about the world of competitive Scrabble. There's a book called Word Freak, which is about (competitive Scrabble), which I knew nothing about. Since then I've become a huge Scrabble guy. It was fun being immersed in something new.

AS - So this is something that is really going on?

MRH - Yeah. It's great to have a story set in that world. Just last August they had a championship where there was a $50,000 prize and it was on ESPN, so they're gaining a certain profile.

AS - This is a good 180 degrees from Leland. You don't want to be just the juvenile crime director.

MRH - All I got for a long time were scripts with a troubled young person. I've done that. I really did have to fight to get people to think of me for this film. Something like actors who have been typecast. Everyone thinks that's all I can do.

AS - So you wanted to avoid that from the get-go.

MRH - Yeah. I knew this was the only writing job I wanted. Curtis Hanson . . . Wonder Boys and L.A. Confidential are two of the best films of the last 20 years. So it was a) I can work with this guy and learn so much and b) I want to do something that's both for my enjoyment (and) for how I'm viewed as a writer and a filmmaker, something that's totally different.

AS - At one point early in Leland, Pearl says that you're not really a writer unless people are reading your work. Is that something you believe?

MRH - For a long, long time I was a writer and nobody was reading my sh-t. I know what it's like getting rejection slips. I made a film nobody saw. I made 20 minutes of another film that I couldn't even finish. You're a writer when you're going through it, you're doing it. But the audience is essential. Whether you're writing for a blog for two other people of if you are writing for yourself, you're writing because you have an audience. I guess it just depends on what you hope that audience will be.

Adam Spector
April 2, 2004

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